A man who lives near Spokane, Wash., is suing the Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese saying he was sexually assaulted in the 1990s by a priest who was his seventh-grade history teacher at a Catholic school in Wichita Falls.
The victim, identified in court documents as John Doe 117, also named Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson in the suit filed this week in Tarrant County district court.
The victim is seeking over $1 million in damages for emotional anguish, medical expenses and diminished earning capacity because of what is described in the suit as a “sadistic ritual of sexual abuse” by the late priest John Sutton.
Sutton, who died in 2004, told the student that if he told anyone of their encounters that “I have the power to ruin your life,” according to the suit.
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In a emailed statement to the Star-Telegram, Fort Worth diocese spokesman Pat Svacina wrote that there is an ongoing investigation of the victim’s claims of abuse.
“Bishop Michael F. Olson personally knows John Doe and his family. The bishop traveled to Washington state in order to provide pastoral care to the former student and family members and to learn more about the allegations,” according to the statement.
The suit alleges that when the victim was in seventh grade at Notre Dame Middle-High School in Wichita Falls, Sutton was his history teacher and a school chaplain. Olson was a seminarian at a Wichita Falls church near the school and knew Sutton, the student and his family and was a frequent visitor for meals at the boy’s home, the suit says.
The suit says that after the victim contacted the diocese, he was told his report of abuse would be investigated and that in March 2014 the diocese notified Notre Dame that it had received an allegation of sexual abuse by Sutton and that it had a “semblance of truth.”
Olson and the victim exchanged telephone calls during which the bishop “assured Doe that he believed him and, intoned how happy he was that Doe had chosen not to hire a lawyer to sue the Diocese, but to meet with him instead.”
Olson later traveled to Spokane and met with the victim and his mother, according to the suit, which alleges that Olson recorded conversations with his mother without her knowledge. The suit says such an action is illegal in Washington.
“This involves the betrayal of someone who believes in the church and who went to the church for help,” said Tahira Kahn Merritt, a Dallas attorney representing the victim. “I can’t believe what the purpose is to interrogate this man and his mother. This is why we filed the lawsuit. What did [the diocese] know about Sutton before he came to Wichita Falls?”
Allegations of abuse
According to court documents, Sutton accused the victim of copying an assignment from an encyclopedia and told the boy to meet him in the chapel during the lunch hour.
The court documents stated that Sutton would take the boy from the lunch room to the chapel at least twice a week in view of other students.
The suit accuses Sutton of sexually abusing the boy, among other ways, by using “sex toys” as punishment for plagiarism and as a penance to God. Sutton allegedly stuffed a towel into the boy’s mouth so that others couldn’t hear his screams and told him to “shut up” or things would be worse and that “I have the power to ruin your life.”
Sutton apparently used a camera on several occasions to take photographs, the suit says.
The abuse continued during the boy’s eighth- and ninth-grade years. When he reported it to another student whose mother was a school counselor, the situation grew worse, the suit says.
The mother did not report the molestation to authorities or to the boy’s parents, the suit says, but soon afterward Sutton and school officials accused the child of selling LSD.
The victim denied the school’s claims but eventually confessed out of fear of further retribution. In 1992, Sutton was transferred to another parish.
In 2013, the victim suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, which was followed by panic attacks, because he was remembering the abuse he suffered during his childhood, the suit says.
Informing Fort Worth officials
His priest in Spokane encouraged him to report the abuse to the diocese in Fort Worth.
The suit says he spoke to the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator, who prayed with the victim over the telephone and told him that the diocese was glad he was not one of “those” who would hire an attorney.
In March 2014, Olson sent a letter to parents and alumni from Notre Dame informing them that the diocese had received a report that a former student had been abused, according to the lawsuit.
In his letter, Olson wrote that, “Allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct are always deeply troubling, and this allegation against Father Sutton was found to have a semblance of truth.”
Then, in September, Olson, along with a diocese liaison, met with John Doe and recorded his statements, the suit says. Olson and liaison also met with the mother, whose conversation was recorded without her consent, the suit says.
The suit accuses the diocese of “stringing the victim along” to silence him until the statute of limitations runs out.
Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696